When I signed on to play Maria in The Sound of Music, the decision was a no-brainer. The iconic musical has been dear to my heart since age eleven, when my dad played Captain von Trapp and I played Louisa at the Aloha Theatre in Kainaliu, Hawaii.
Six years ago I teamed up with my friend Greg Warwick to put on the show at Miles River Middle School. Working with those kids – and with Greg – revolutionized my experience of theater.
This time around, Greg and I both get to be onstage while helping behind the scenes (Greg is choreographing; I’ve taught the children their music).
I joke that Maria is “the part I was born to play.” She sings a lot; I sing a lot. She’s an irrepressible spirit with decidedly spiritual leanings; ditto here. In many ways, being Maria feels like the culmination of my performing life so far: twenty-four years of community theater, fifteen years teaching music.
So why did playing the role get so complicated?
It started with my hips. We began working on the show right around the time my sacroiliac issues came to the fore, so pain clouded week after week of rehearsals. It was the equivalent of swimsuit shopping for my psyche. You know how you can feel healthy and not-at-all-hateful toward your body, but under the ghoulish lighting of a department store dressing room you regain all the self-loathing you embodied at fifteen?
Well, pain was the fluorescent lighting and the show was the swimsuit. Not only did my body hurt; my joie de vivre dwindled to nothing. Playing the ebullient Maria no longer felt like the role of a lifetime but a cruel cosmic joke. When anything bothers me and I’m feeling unhappy, I just try to think of nice things, Maria tells the children. Oh, I endeavored to follow the advice falling from my lips, but raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens don’t always cut it.
I wanted to be stronger than my circumstance. It’s called acting for a reason, right? But I fell miles short of strong. I was lying down on the floor between scenes. I was short-tempered. I was wondering why I haven’t given up on theater altogether.
Then came a miraculous turning point in the hips saga. Overnight my bones were back where they belonged, and just in time for the rehearsal process to ramp up. I’d like to say my attitude immediately transformed. No dice. My body still ached as its muscles slowly unclenched. I was wary of relapse. But mostly, I was in the habit of being cranky.
Perhaps it goes without saying that crankiness is a terrible habit. My director and friend Myriam has a stunning résumé of theatrical credits, but this has been her first foray into community theater, and her methodology sometimes flummoxed me. Instead of opening up to the obvious learning opportunity, I was subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) resisting. Later I’d see my foolishness and apologize, but still. I wasn’t proud of the pattern.
The only thing standing between me and a joyful experience was myself. Recognizing this fact helped a little. Joking about it helped a lot. The other day in rehearsal Myriam ribbed me about my stubbornness and the contrition that inevitably follows. “Just like Maria,” she said. It hadn’t occurred to me that my less-than-charming qualities might also suit me for the role.
In case you don’t know the plot line, Maria starts the show as a nun-in-training. While her heart is in the right place, the rest of the abbey can see she doesn’t wear her wimple well (song cue!). Despite Maria’s repeated protestations (memorization challenge: which time do I say Leave! Leave here? Oh no, Reverend Mother, please no! and which time do I say Don’t send me away Mother, please?), the Mother Abbess excuses her from the abbey for a short-term governess gig under the employ of widower Captain von Trapp. A handful of winsome tunes later, she’s won the hearts of his seven children and inadvertently diverted his affections from the upper crust heiress he’s been courting.
Here’s the rub: Maria doesn’t want to be in love with Captain von Trapp. She’s pledged her life to God’s service, and she has a clear picture in her mind of what that means. She fights tooth and nail to stay on the track she’s envisioned, but reality (fortunately) trumps her plans.
Funny. Maria’s not the only one who’s unduly devoted to her idea of who she should be. If I’d played this role at any other time of my life, perhaps I could have maintained a polished façade. Perhaps I could have impressed my director and my fellow cast members. Perhaps it would have been easy.
But when was the last time I learned anything from ease? As it is, I might not feel polished or impressive, but I feel enormously grateful. Grateful for Myriam and Greg. Grateful for the production team, the cast, and the crew (especially our stage manager, my saintlike fiancé David). Grateful that my body is well and my dream is coming true. It doesn’t feel like something I could have orchestrated or earned. And like Maria, I wouldn’t want it any other way.